Jamal Crawford changed the narrative of his career: From a starter on bad teams to arguably the league’s best sixth man ever on good teams.
Crawford spent the first nine seasons of his career with the Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks and Golden State Warriors while accumulating a 226-485 (.318) overall record.
The Bulls were in a rebuilding phase at the time. Phil Jackson was out as coach and stars Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman left following three consecutive championship seasons from 1996-98.
Chicago then dealt Crawford to New York with Jerome Williams in exchange for Dikembe Mutombo, Othella Harrington, Frank Williams and Cezary Trybanski. During Crawford’s time in New York, the Knicks were in the midst of the Stephon Marbury era. They traded for his Bulls teammate Eddy Curry, paired Marbury with Steve Francis in the backcourt and traded for Zach Randolph. The coaching carousel included Lenny Wilkins, Herb Williams, Larry Brown, Isiah Thomas and the start of the Mike D’Antoni era.
Crawford was traded to the Warriors in exchange for Al Harrington after the Knicks got off to a 6-5 start during the 2008-09 season.
Crawford and former Knicks forward Zach Randolph both have discussed what could have been in New York had the team not traded both players to make a free agency run at LeBron James and other stars in the summer of 2010.
“It was just tough because, at that time, me and Zach were both averaging 20, it was the best start in the last 10 years at that point in the season for the Knicks,” Crawford told Basketball Insiders. “But, I get it. [The] 2010 free agency class was coming up and me and Zach made the most. We had guys like LeBron, Joe Johnson, D-Wade, all those guys were going to be free agents, you have to give yourself a chance with those guys, so I get it. But yeah, me and Zach have had that conversation a time or two.”
The Knicks ultimately landed Amar’e Stoudemire in the summer of 2010.
After being traded from the Knicks, Crawford played 54 games for the Warriors. Crawford was then traded to the Atlanta Hawks for Speedy Claxton and Acie Law after the season.
Crawford became a full-time sixth man in his 10th season, which was his first season with the Hawks.
“It was different because I had never done it before, to be honest with you, but I was going into my ninth year or something like that, and it got to the point where I was tired of being known as just a good player on bad teams,” Crawford told Basketball Insiders. “I was like, ‘I’ll do whatever it takes.’ Fast forward, I go to Atlanta, they kind of had their core guys in place. I’m like, ‘Alright, whatever,’ so I knew, going into the summer, getting traded there, I was going to come off the bench.
“But it was still different. It was still weird. Then, after the first game, I took like two shots and was like,’I feel weak, this isn’t me,’ and Mike Woodson, who’s coaching me now [as an assistant coach with the Clippers], was like, ‘I want you to lead the league in scoring off the bench.’ I was like, ‘Okay,’ so I became more aggressive and then won Sixth Man of the Year and I saw the importance of having somebody like that off the bench, a guy who averages 20 points coming off the bench – that’s a decent boost. If you look back to [Manu] Ginobili and Jason Terry in Dallas and James Harden in OKC, all the elite teams usually have a guy who is really, really good off the bench, so it made sense.”
Crawford won his first Sixth Man of the Year award that season as he made his first individual trip to the playoffs with the Hawks. Crawford averaged 18 points per game on 45 percent shooting from the field and 38 percent from beyond the arc that season.
After a two-year stint in Atlanta where Crawford made back-to-back playoff trips with the Hawks, he signed with the Portland Trail Blazers as a free agent. Atlanta finished 97-67 (.591) during Crawford’s stint. Crawford and the Trail Blazers missed the playoffs in his lone season with Portland.
Crawford then signed as a free agent the following summer with the Los Angeles Clippers and continued on his path to becoming the most decorated sixth man in league history.
Individually, Crawford won Sixth Man of the Year awards in 2014 and 2016, while the Clippers made four consecutive trips to the playoffs entering this season. The Clippers had a combined 222-106 (.677) record during those four seasons.
Crawford has won two of his Sixth Man of the Year awards playing for Clippers head coach Doc Rivers. Fittingly, after coaching Crawford when he won his first award with the Hawks, Mike Woodson has also been on the Clippers’ coaching staff as an assistant since 2014.
“He plays all summer, he loves the game, and he’s a professional scorer,” Rivers said. “He’s just good at it, he has a knack for it. He doesn’t have one certain shot, he’ll take any shot – literally. And that’s okay. I mean, for me, from a coaching standpoint, I allow him, and I think that’s important. The moment I tell him ‘bad shot’ I’d probably screw him up.”
Entering this season as the only player in league history to win three Sixth Man of the Year awards, I asked Crawford if that distinction makes him the best sixth man ever?
“I don’t know, I don’t know,” Crawford replied smiling. “I’m so in the moment of just playing in my career. I think you would have to go back, but there have been some great ones. Kevin McHale, Ricky Pierce, Detlef Schrempf, Microwave [Vinnie Johnson], there have been so many guys who were so good, and the guys I said [referencing Harden, Terry and Ginobili]. We owe those guys, so I don’t know.”
Crawford will have time to add to his legacy. Crawford told Basketball Insiders he would like to play for another five years if possible. When he retires, he hopes to land a front office job.
For now, however, Crawford is living in the moment and focused on helping the Clippers reach their potential and challenge the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers for the championship this season.
“I feel like when we’re the best version of ourselves, we can play with anybody,” Crawford told Basketball Insiders. “I really believe that, and obviously there are some good teams out there and they probably say the same thing, but for us, we’re just worried about what we can control, and we feel like, if we can really put this together, we can be as good as we want to be.”
The Clippers have built the best version of themselves with the team’s deepest bench in recent memory led by Crawford, Marreese Speights, Austin Rivers, Raymond Felton, Brandon Bass, Paul Pierce, Wesley Johnson and Alan Anderson.
If the Clippers are going to realize their full potential and challenge the Warriors and Cavaliers, the bench will be the determining x-factor as Crawford continues to change his own personal narrative from a starter on bad teams to an elite sixth man on good teams.
In his 17th season in the league, Crawford can add to his narrative even further by becoming the league’s Sixth Man of the Year for an unprecedented fourth time on a Clippers team that could win a championship.
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